WASHINGTON -- The FBI sniper who killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver declined to answer questions yesterday from a Senate subcommittee, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Senators and Justice Department officials took pains to say that FBI Agent Lon Horiuchi wanted to testify, but his attorney advised against it because of an investigation by a county prosecutor in northern Idaho.
"I think the Fifth Amendment is very often misunderstood," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. His refusal to testify should not be considered an admission of guilt, she said.
Agent Horiuchi, who has said he accidentally killed Vicki Weaver while aiming at her armed friend, spoke in private with the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Government Information.
The subcommittee is holding hearings on the entire 1992 incident at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where a shootout also took the lives of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan and the Weavers' 14-year-old son, Samuel.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican subcommittee chairman, permitted Agent Horiuchi to invoke the Fifth Amendment privately to avoid a public "spectacle." He also said the subcommittee refused to grant Agent Horiuchi legal immunity, meaning his testimony could have been used against him in any subsequent trial.
Mr. Specter said the inquiry would continue despite Agent Horiuchi's refusal to testify.
The subcommittee also wants to talk to five FBI officials who are under criminal investigation over allegations of covering up the controversial "shoot on sight" orders that Agent Horiuchi acted under.
The Ruby Ridge incident began when Mr. Weaver refused to appear in court to answer weapons charges. Mr. Weaver, in testimony before senators last week, accused Agent Horiuchi of shooting intentionally at his wife, an assertion FBI officials vehemently denied.
Mr. Weaver and friend Kevin Harris were tried for murder in 1993 in connection with Marshal Degan's death, but the jury acquitted both. The jury did convict Mr. Weaver for his failure to appear, and he remained in jail until December 1993. He now lives in Iowa.
Randall Day, the local prosecutor who is investigating the Ruby Ridge matter, said his inquiry had been delayed by the state trial and subsequent federal inquiries.
That includes the current investigation by the U.S. attorney in Washington. Five FBI officials, including recently demoted deputy director Larry Potts, are under suspension pending completion of that investigation into the shredding of documents on the Ruby Ridge case.